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Gates offers musings on Office, services at ODC

Bill Gates' keynote address at the Office System Developers Conference focused on more than just Office. He also spoke about software plus services and the future of computing.

Bill Gates' keynote address at the Office System Developers Conference focused on more than just Office. The Microsoft chairman also spoke about software plus services, touch computing, Moore's Law and Office Open XML. All in all, Gates said to what our correspondent found to be a surprisingly small crowd, the future is bright for Microsoft Office and the application development related to it.

SAN JOSE, CALIF. -- It's hard to gauge the state of an industry through the filter of a conference. The look and feel of the Microsoft Office System Developers Conference was of a ghost town. The halls of the massive San Jose Convention center seemed somewhat empty on the morning of the keynote. No throngs of people hovering outside. There was no one waiting in line to register. As one MS employee confided, "Basic productivity application development is just not as sexy as writing Silverlight applications."

There were about 2,000 attendees packed into the main hall to listen to Bill Gates present the opening keynote about the future of Microsoft Office development. The seats were strategically pruned to give the sensation of a standing room only audience, and yet there was a lot of white space around the edges for standing. One could speculate on whether the future of Microsoft Office development is on the decline being usurped by other developer interests like Java development, open source, or just plain going to the office.

But there is something going on here. As one of the attendees noted in a question directed at Gates, there can be up to a 10-day wait for developers with SharePoint 2007 technical support inquiries.

Gates responded that there has been an overwhelming growth in the use of SharePoint 2007 that far exceeded Microsoft's expectations. He assured the audience of developers there would be more investment in SharePoint 2007 technical support.

The future is (almost) now

Gates said he was pretty optimistic about the future of computing, with Moore's Law holding up to the premise of more computing power, better graphics and storage capabilities growing even faster. The size of solid and magnetic disks are enabling us to build gigantic databases and making things like video practical.

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Using Microsoft Office as a development platform

Perhaps the most dramatic change is the way we interact with the PC. We're used to the keyboard and mouse, but in the future we will have touch, voice and pen interfaces. This means exciting new features, such as digital whiteboards, with which we can interact directly -- and don't forget increased productivity and unified communications. The desk will be an intelligent surface which means the facility to get through information will get better and better. (Gates neglected to mention that, as per Moore's Law, companies would continue to need to replace their corporate computing infrastructure every two years to keep up with the new office.)

Gates also commented about his move to working only part time at Microsoft so that he can focus more time on his philanthropic work. There was a screening the now-famous funny video about Gates' last day at the office.

Despite the transition, Gates said he plans to remain involved in working on Microsoft Office and is looking forward to how Microsoft drive its future development. He is particularly intrigued about the evolution of Microsoft Office as a development platform for improving productivity, which goes back to the old Visual Basic days from 1993. Visual Studio 2008 marks the complete integration of the development environment into this productivity platform.

Bringing out the best in Microsoft Office

Gates said he was pretty excited about the future of Microsoft Office development. At a high level, he sees three main legs of this development platform -- the client, the server, and the services.

Client development is focused on making the suite of desktop tools like Word, Outlook, Excel and PowerPoint more useful for the end users. Gates said one of Microsoft's challenges has been connecting the rich functionality in Office with the user's ability to take advantage of it. Microsoft kept getting requests to add extra features that were already included in the suite but that end users could not find, so it gambled with the introduction of the UI Ribbon and task plane, which has proven an overwhelming success.

The move to the Ribbon represented a major risk, Gates noted. In the classic UI, the drop-down menus were getting longer and longer, hiding much of the rich functionality. In the next versions of Windows, we will see this fluent UI used across a much wider variety of different applications, he said.

Visual Studio 2008 introduces Microsoft Office development built right in, without any special downloads, and adds support for writing components for new features like the Ribbon UI. Gates said another way is to connect into Office via the object model, which can reduce the amount of time required to create new apps.

Another key advance is the new file format known as Office Open XML. Gates said Microsoft is using this in an active way across all its software offerings. He demonstrated how third parties like Mindjet are developing more fluid applications to take advantage of these new features.

On the server side, Gates noted there are a number of ways to connect into SharePoint 2007 via standard Office applications and browsers. He said, "People have recognized how important this is. When people in a corporate context want to find information, they don't just want structured documents, they want structured information…The last thing they want is a search that only looks at documents. In fact the structured information store is a key to finding the documents they want."

There are also new data connectors that can call data from other applications as services. One great example is a connector that Microsoft uses to gather Siebel data directly from within Outlook. Gates said the frustration level was high when users had a separate application UI for navigation and finding internal documents. Because of that connector, users can now go to one SharePoint place and type in the name of a customer to find the Siebel record, which account managers are involved and which documents are involved.

Tying services to the server, and vice versa

The software plus services piece is the smallest of these today, but he believes that it will become equally important in connecting up and build applications that will run either in a Microsoft data center or on a system integrator's server. Gates said, "We are making these server and service tiers as symmetrical as possible." A lot of the work that goes into building a SharePoint template could be written once and deployed onto either tier.

SharePoint has become the standard repository for Microsoft Office applications and data. It takes what has been a fragmented network of portals, document servers, and workflow that are each complicated, and turned it into a single infrastructure that a broad employee base can use.

Microsoft also announced that it was updating its Live SMB offering, known as Microsoft Office Live Small Business. In the past, it was possible for a small business to use the free Microsoft services, but only for outward-facing applications. Now, the free version can take advantage of Office Live services for internal portal-type applications as well. Additional features such as shopping carts are available for a monthly fee. (Unfortunately the Office Live services don't allow developers to upload new .NET components.)

To show how these pieces can work together, David Zanca, Senior VP of e-commerce at FedEx, demonstrated a Web part to help companies automatically print shipping labels and track shipment all from within outlook. They also demonstrated a FedEx web part that enables an employee to print documents directly to a FedEx center for shipment or pickup.

Zanca said, "Our intent is to imagine and develop services that can make you into a hero in your organization."

Gates noted that the FedEx demo showed off Microsoft's vision of the future with its support for client programming, server programming, and Internet services. He later said Microsoft is looking at offering a kind of hybrid, where a company can run some applications on premise and some off with a high degree of reliability and consistency across internal and Internet based servers and services.

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